President Trump’s latest threat of action against the North Korean regime, when he said that an attack from North Korea against America or its territories abroad would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” was an eerily disturbing echo of what a former US President said in an address to the nation seventy-two years ago. On 3 August 1945 President Harry S. Truman gave an ominous warning to the Japanese Government, who were still fighting on against the United States and Allies three months after the war in Europe had come to an end. President Truman warned: “if they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth.” Just three days later Truman ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese city Hiroshima, followed three days after that, seventy-two years ago today, with a second atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki. At least 120,000 people died immediately in the blasts with tens of thousands more dying from radiation poisoning later. Despite the first bomb on Hiroshima, the Japanese Government still refused to surrender and eventually only did so nearly a week after the second bombing on 15 August 1945, thus ending the Second World War. The impact of those two bombs – to date the only two nuclear weapons ever used in anger – was immediate and changed the world forever as it and the subsequent nuclear arms race and Cold War made the Governments and people of the world aware that we know had the ability to wipe out humanity. We continue to live with that threat and today with the tensions between the United States and North Korea at a critical point the danger is more prominent than at any point in the last two decades or more.
The justification given for using nuclear weapons on Japan was to avoid an American-led invasion of the Japanese mainland. Such an invasion would have been incredibly costly in lives on both sides. The Japanese were expecting an invasion and their mentality of fighting to the death and that surrendering was a dishonourable act meant the Americans could expect nothing but the most fierce and destructive resistance to their invasion. An invasion would have also dragged the war on for months, possibly years, longer. The use of the atomic bombs achieved the goal of bringing a swift end to World War Two but their use demonstrated all too clearly the devastation and consequences their use brings – no matter how justified their use may seem at the time. The use of nuclear weapons in 1945 was relatively risk free. The United States were the only country in the world that had any so there was no danger of retaliation. That situation quickly changed as the Soviet Union, then other countries, began developing their own nuclear technology and weapons. The arms race then became the focus of the two superpowers militaries and the prospect of global annihilation was all too real. Once the Soviet Union tested its own nuclear weapons, it was no longer possible for anyone to ever contemplate using the weapons in anger again without risking a devastating escalation and the inevitable global nuclear apocalypse that would bring.
This threat of mutual total destruction if just one nuclear bomb was deployed in anger has, for good or worse, kept the two superpowers from destroying each other ever since. That doesn’t mean that the United States and the Soviet Union, along with China and other nuclear powers, have not fought wars and gotten involved in conflicts. Indeed, conflict somewhere in the world seems to have almost been constant since the end of World War Two and often the nuclear powers involve themselves in wars beyond their own countries in a form of proxy war, often with the intent of maintaining of increasing their influence in a region or preventing their enemies from gaining influence – Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East to name just a few of the prominent ones. Seventy-two years after America and the world celebrated the end of the Second World War, its President and the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un, are making disturbing statements and tweets threatening a conflict that could quickly escalate out of control all too easily.
U.S. intelligence has suggested that that North Korean regime now has the technology and capability to launch a nuclear strike against the United States mainland. Such capabilities were thought to be years away and Donald Trump had recently said that North Korea had not and would not achieve this capability. He was wrong and the new intelligence has increased the tension between the two countries dramatically. Then this week, Kim Jong-un made a specific threat against the Pacific island of Guam – a United States unincorporated territory were over 160,000 people live, with its residents being American citizens. There are also thousands of American military personnel on the island. The North Korean regime said it was “examining the operation plan” to strike the island. In particular they said they were looking at striking the Anderson Air Base on the island, designed “to send a serious warning sign to the U.S.” The Anderson Air Base is the closest U.S. military installation to North Korea excluding those in Japan. The threat from North Korea was itself a response to the Americans flying two B1B bombers over the Korean peninsula earlier this week (below). The bombers flew out of Anderson Air Base on Guam. In response to this threat to Guam, President Trump then made his retaliatory “fire and fury” threat.
The direct threat to strike Guam is a major escalation of the language coming out of Pyongyang. They have always maintained that they have developed nuclear weapons to protect them from a strike from the U.S. Now that they are threatening pre-emptive strikes the whole level of tension increases as the competing language from the two country’s Governments becomes that more aggressive and threatening.
The Governor of the island tried to reassure his citizens, but also emphasised that a threat or attack on Guam would be a threat or attack on the United States itself:
“I want to reassure the people of Guam that currently there is no threat to our island or the Marianas.
“I also want to remind national media that Guam is American soil and we have 200,000 Americans in Guam and the Marianas. We are not just a military installation.”
A journalist, Robert Santos, who is on the island said the reaction to North Korea’s threat from locals was mixed:
“Some people are who are confident we are safe with the US bases here and others who are not so sure.
Some people believe (Trump and Kim) are clashing personalities and they speak recklessly. But here are some people who believe […] that we are completely safe regardless of what happens.”
The strategic importance of Guam is significant. Should there be conflict between North Korea and the United States, the latter would launch its operations from the island. The U.S. has bases on Okinawa in Japan, but using these would bring the Japanese directly into any conflict. Should the Japanese Government allow the Americans to launch attacks on North Korea from Okinawa then the significance of Guam decreases but such a decision by the Japanese would escalate any conflict and dramatically increase the chances of North Korea attacking Japan. Guam’s Homeland Security Advisor George Charfauros told CNN:
“They’ve slowly developed their capabilities but we stand in high confidence with the US (Defence Department’s) ability to not only defend Guam and the surrounding areas but also the continental US… There are several layers of ballistic missile defence.”
Two years ago an anti-missile system called The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System (THAAD) was deployed on the island, with the intent of intercepting and destroying any incoming ballistic missiles. The United States also deploys Aegis-equipped warships in the Marianas islands – of which Guam is the largest. Mr Charfauros said that the United States maintains a high state of readiness on Guam and they have the capability to counter any threat from North Korea or elsewhere.
Despite the increased tensions, the United States Secreatary of State Rex Tillerson says that the threat from North Korea is not imminent. He said that the President’s “fire and fury” comments were simply a warning and a desire to send a clear message to the regime in Pyongyang. Mr Tillerson said that the North Korean regime “should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people”. It is this real consequence if Kim Jong-un attacks Guam or anywhere else that is perhaps ensuing that the tensions between Pyongyang and Washington remain simply tension and does not escalate to conflict. Any attack from North Korea would lead to the inevitable destruction of the Kim Jong-un regime but also much of the country. In effect any attack from Kim Jong-un would be in effect suicide. Nevertheless, Mr Tillerson yesterday emphasised the might of the United States which could be deployed against North Korea if it chose to:
“While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth.”
He pointed out that in a conflict the North Koreans would be outmatched and would lose any conflict it initiates. Mr Tillerson said that Kim Jong-un does not respond to diplomatic language and President Trump’s comments were the strong message that he would understand.
President Trump, as he likes to do, also emphasised this point on Twitter by boasting of the nuclear capability of the United States. He tweeted that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was “more powerful than ever before” but that he was hopeful that “we will never have to use this power,” and boasted that there will never be a time when the United States is not the most powerful nation in the world. Trump really does like to boast
So here we are on the seventy-second anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the detonation of the atomic bomb over Nagasaki and the world watches with increasing concern as the rhetoric and threats are being bantered back-and-forth between the United States and North Korea. For a long time we have reassured ourselves that the North Korean’s were a long way away from having the technological capability to shrink a nuclear warhead to the extent needed to put it on top a ballistic inter-continental missile. While that was still only a goal for Pyongyang we told ourselves that Kim Jong-un could do nothing to seriously threaten world conflict. Now the North Korean regime has that technology, years ahead of when we expected them to. Despite sanctions against the regime they have continued to develop their military and their nuclear capability – at the expense of the population of the country. Before they could threaten retaliation on Japan or South Korea if the United States attacked them. Now they can strike on America itself, or Europe or Australia – along with its near neighbours Japan and South Korea. That changes the whole ball game and President Trump’s continuing counter threats and rhetoric now takes on a much more dangerous element. I often think that Donald Trump rarely thinks before he speaks, or tweets. His comments are often driven by his ego and by his need to appear “great”, and that could be extremely dangerous. Both Trump and Kim are driven by their egos and self-obsession. Right now, as tensions are increasing, that is the last thing we need.
SOME FACTS ABOUT GUAM
- The 541sq km (209 sq miles) volcanic and coral island in the Pacific between the Philippines and Hawaii.
- It is a “non-incorporated” US territory, with a population of about 163,000.
- That means people born in Guam are US citizens, have an elected governor and House Representative, but cannot vote for a president in US national elections.
- US military bases cover about a quarter of the island. About 6,000 personnel are based there and there are plans to move in thousands more.
- It was a key US base in World War Two, and remains a vital staging post for US operations, giving access to potential flashpoints like the South China Sea, the Koreas and the Taiwan Straits.
Sources & Further Reading:
- Bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki | BBC History
- North Korea threatens strike on Guam | CNN politics
- In South Korea we’re scared but we’ve normalised the fear | The Guardian
- Trump’s ‘Fire and Fury’ Threat Raises Alarm in Asia | New York Times
- Could North Korea go to nuclear war with US? | The Independent
- Trump receives criticism from Congress members over “belligerent” and “reckless” North Korea warning | The Independent
- North Korea’s Potential Targets: Guam, South Korea and Japan | New York Times